Monday, October 22, 2018

Curtis Sittenfeld's Breakthrough Experience

In the 24th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Curtis Sittenfeld, author of You Think It, I'll Say It (Random House), reveals her writing and reading habits.

Describe your writing practice. 
I usually write for a few hours in the morning. I'm very lucky that writing is my full-time job, meaning that since 2005, I have signed contracts for books I haven't yet written and am working toward a deadline. I work from home after my kids go to school, in an office, and I write outlines so that I have a sense of the overarching structure of a story or novel. I try to stay offline when I'm writing, and sometimes I succeed.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced. 
From 2005, when my first novel was published, until 2016, when my fifth novel was published, I wrote very few short stories. Occasionally, I wrote one based on an assigned idea from a magazine editor, which was fun but less organic than working on an idea that I alone had come up with. In spring 2016, I wrote the story "Gender Studies," which was purely my idea and in fact an idea I'd been thinking about for a few years, concerning a woman who loses her driver's license while on a business trip. It felt a bit like this was my first story written as a full-fledged adult rather than a still-confused post-MFA student (to be clear, I'm a still-confused adult, but my grad school experience, which concluded in 2001, now seems like a long time ago). I believe that writing five novels, and also just getting older, had helped me sharpen certain skills that I could apply to short stories. That story was accepted by The New Yorker (after I'd been intermittently throwing myself at the magazine for 20 years, without ever having a story accepted), and it was as if a dam had broken (in my work, not at The New Yorker)—I then wrote several more stories in a period of a few months.

What are the most difficult conditions you’ve successfully written under? 
The Trump Presidency.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well? 
It varies based on the reason my writing isn't going well. Sometimes I need to revise my outline. Sometimes I need to do more research by reading or by interviewing someone. Sometimes I just need to try harder to tune out distractions or fight my own bad habits (hi, Twitter). If I'm being undisciplined, the first step tends to be admitting to myself that I'm being undisciplined and trying to put a plan in place, whether it's deciding what scene I'll tackle when I next start writing or what my goal is and schedule will be for the next few weeks or months.

What are your reading habits like?
I read mostly at night, though sometimes if I'm reading for research for my fiction or to prepare for an event, I read during the day. Though I read more fiction, I'll read whatever intrigues me—some of the books I've read recently are the short Norwegian novel The Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen; the YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli; the essay collection My Own Devices by the rapper and writer Dessa; and the forthcoming memoir about weight (and lots of other things) The Elephant in the Room by Tommy Tomlinson.

What new story collections are you looking forward to reading?
Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker and Better Times by Sara Batkie.